Kami Glass loves someone she’s never met . . . a boy she’s talked to in her head ever since she was born. She wasn’t silent about her imaginary friend during her childhood, and is thus a bit of an outsider in her sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Still, Kami hasn’t suffered too much from not fitting in. She has a best friend, runs the school newspaper, and is only occasionally caught talking to herself. Her life is in order, just the way she likes it, despite the voice in her head.
But all that changes when the Lynburns return.
The Lynburn family has owned the spectacular and sinister manor that overlooks Sorry-in-the-Vale for centuries. The mysterious twin sisters who abandoned their ancestral home a generation ago are back, along with their teenage sons, Jared and Ash, one of whom is eerily familiar to Kami. Kami is not one to shy away from the unknown—in fact, she’s determined to find answers for all the questions Sorry-in-the-Vale is suddenly posing. Who is responsible for the bloody deeds in the depths of the woods? What is her own mother hiding? And now that her imaginary friend has become a real boy, does she still love him? Does she hate him? Can she trust him?
This book’s premise is one of those that make me go “why didn’t I think of that?!” But I don’t think my brain is wired for writing novels, so I’m just thankful that a skilled author actually thought of it and wrote it.
“Unspoken” is my first Sarah Rees Brennan book, and I’m happy to discover that I like her writing style. She’s easy to read, helps me conjure up great mental images of her story and characters, and she’s sassy and witty in a way that reminds me of Libba Bray.
“I knew we should not have brought you,” Mom said. “The Lynburns built this town on their blood and bones.”
“That was their first mistake,” Jared said. “They should’ve built a city on rock and roll.”
Brennan describes the book as “Sassy Gothic,” which is an apt label. “Unspoken” definitely exudes gothic vibes complete with old creepy mansions and a lot of…ummm…murder, and the writing style and humor take care of the sassy part. The only thing that was iffy for me with regard to the sass is it seems most of the characters are that way. I’m okay with Kami bringing it on, but even Jared, Ash, and Angela have that same kind of humor. It’s not necessarily a bad thing–and hey, we get more punch lines!–but it diminishes Kami’s uniqueness as a character by several notches.
“That’s true,” Kami said. “What I would think of you, I do not know. So what does brown leather mean, then?”
“I’m going for manly,” Jared said. “Maybe a little rugged.”
“It’s bits of dead cow; don’t ask it to perform miracles.”
“I am fascinated by gardening,” Kami agreed solemnly. “Tell me about fertilizer, Ash.”
“I dunno, we haven’t known each other that long, that’s kind of racy talk,” said Ash.
Holly was laughing. “Jared told her he used to be an exotic dancer in San Francisco.”
“My body is a gift from God,” Jared said gravely. “Except for my hips, which are clearly a gift from the devil.”
“I’m surprised she didn’t call the police,” Ash muttered. “I would have.”
I won’t talk about the mechanics of how the “imaginary friend” thing works, but the conflict that arises when Kami and Jared finally meet sure is fascinating. It’s akin to meeting a long-time pen pal or Twitter friend or blog / message board correspondent face-to-face for the very first time, except that this other person was privy to your innermost thoughts, feelings, and fears. It was fine when you can pretend he was just “imaginary”, but finding out he’s real and realizing just how much he knows and how much power he actually has over you because of that gives an even more dangerous meaning to the phrase “blackmail material.”
All the words she knew to describe what he was to her were from love stories and love songs, but those were not words anyone truly meant. They were like Jared, in a way. If they were real, they would be terrifying.
On hindsight, I think this is also how Ginny Weasley must have felt in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” after pouring her heart out to Diary!Tom Riddle and learning later on that he was just using her to become more corporeal and to get revenge on Harry.
The fantasy element of the novel is interesting as well. Brennan built a magic system that really suits the setting of the book and complements the whodunit story line. For a while there I thought she was going to go in the “normal heroine discovers she is supernatural” direction, which would have made for interesting character interactions considering what everyone else was, but she subverted that nicely and went for what I thought was a more satisfying arc, especially when one considers the ending.
The characters are fleshed out well. Each one has enough back story and a significant role, although most are cast to type, especially the two lead boys (Jared: Emo, bad boy object of romance; Ash: Talented, nice guy, love triangle material). A couple of the secondary characters became pawns in some late-stage plot developments, which is generally okay, except that these had that slight contrived feel to them. But maybe it’s just me.
Kami is a little too Luna Lovegood-quirky for my personal taste, but I like that she has courage and wasn’t willing to just sit around and wait while blood continues to be shed in some isolated shed deep in the forest. I also like that she can be insecure (about her looks), but is confident in other aspects of her personality, like her Elizabeth Wakefield-esque journalistic sense.
Her exploits with the rest of the gang reminded me too much of “Get a Clue”, though. It was fun when they went on their Scooby Gang mission the first time, but the “investigations” happened a little too often (again, for my personal taste) to account for Kami finding various pieces of the mystery. I prefer more event and plot-driven revelations, especially since there are a lot of opportunities for those in the narrative. This doesn’t cripple the story, though, so it’s not really a problem, and maybe the Scooby vibe really is what Brennan was going for; for the third time, I guess this is just a matter of personal taste.
One other remarkable thing about Kami is before the story started, she’s practically normal–with a complete, loving family and a normal school life–except for her imaginary friend and her tendency to space out. In that, she’s rather different from most YA protagonists who tend to carry more emotional baggage into the story with their broken families, heartbreak, attitude problems, criminal records, and the like. It’s refreshing to read about such a character and to witness how Brennan managed her development.
“Unspoken” is paced well, it has fascinating conflicts and relationships, an atmospheric setting, and a magic system that has a lot of potential to develop more in the sequels. The characters are likable enough that I root for them, although they don’t particularly evoke enough emotion from me to be more scared or happy or thrilled along with them. Nevertheless, I am now invested in the series and I will continue reading the sequels because I feel like Brennan has more great, fun stuff up her sleeves, and I really want to know what happens after that cliffhanger of an ending.
If you liked the “Beautiful Creatures” series by Kami Garcia (namesake!) and Margaret Stohl, then you’ll probably appreciate this one as well. 🙂
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Sarah Rees Brennan wrote a prequel short story for “Unspoken” entitled “The Summer Before I Met You,” which gives us more details about certain things that happened in the past to Kami and Angela that were referenced in “Unspoken”. It’s free, and can be read here: click! (You don’t need to read “Unspoken” before reading this, I think, though the references will have more impact if you did.)